Scala!!!, Ali Catterall and Jane Giles
David McGillivray in 'Scalla!!!'

‘Scala!!!’ Is an Enjoyable and Oft-Hilarious Tribute to Alt-Cinephiles’ Elysium

Alternative film theater and music venue Scala’s contribution to British culture was urgent and necessary to counter the government’s regressive social policies.

Ali Catterall and Jane Giles
5 January 2024 (UK)

When reporting on a cultural touchpoint in film, especially if it’s a place linked to a particular time in history, it’s tempting to lapse into mythology. Nostalgia tints memories and the impulse to be part of something larger or important can result in hagiography. Contemporary viewers of such storytelling can feel left out and alienated by the accounts of survivors of a specific moment in history. It’s difficult to tell these kinds of stories of yesterday without falling into this trap, and therefore, it’s up to the filmmaker to build on these anecdotes to tell a fuller story.

There is some of that in the new film Scala!!!, which tells the fascinating story of the legendary London cinema. Scala has an exciting history that reaches as far back as the beginning of the 20th century, going through seismic changes in owners and locations before settling in its most crucial location, King’s Cross. From the 1970s, The Scala wasn’t just a cinema but a music venue, hosting some of the greatest figures in punk and rock, including Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.

According to Scala!!!, its heyday appears to be from the ’80s to its demise in 1993. Former Scala programmer Jane Giles and co-director Ali Catterall assemble a colorful cast of characters, former patrons, employees, and performers who made Scala the vital hub for cinephiles, punks, misfits, and creatives. As seen by the early advertising posters, the programming at Scala was wildly eclectic: there were roadhouse pictures and gonza cinema, alternative and punk cinema, b-movies, as well as mainstream cinema. Scala showed a dizzying program of films that appealed to a wide range of audiences, many of whom felt ignored or condescended to by traditional cinema societies. Filmmakers like Russ Meyer, David Lynch, Derek Jarman, and John Waters (who appears in the film) challenged conventional traditions and mores of cinema and were celebrated as counterculture heroes.

Scala!!! (subtitled Or, the Incredibly Strange Rise and Fall of the World’s Wildest Cinema and How It Influenced a Mixed-Up Generation of Weirdos and Misfits) is a loving tribute to the love of cinema. Among the many talking heads who participate are filmmakers like John Akomfrah, Mary Harron, and Isaac Julien, actors such as Paul Putner and Ralph Brown, and film writers like Kim Newman and Adam Buxton, who give testimonies about their relationship with the cinema and how influential the films where to their own work. Giles and Catterall include a generous wealth of clips from various films, including the jarring sexploitation flicks screened; these screenings were events chronicling a veritable library of transgressive cinema of the 20th century.

Apart from playing movies, Scala was also a venue that became a haven for the weirdos or misfits in the film’s title. Debauchery and decadence seemed to go hand-in-hand with the film viewing. Hair-raising tales of sex, drugs, and even death are sprinkled among the interviews, and many of these stories are told with grim humor. It’s easy for Scala!!! to treat these anecdotes with a bemused air – and often, when talking heads tell these stories, it feels as if we’re listening to campfire stories. Former programmer Mark Valen offers some much-needed gravitas when he tearfully remembers a suicide.

So much of Scala!!! celebrates giddy transgression, that affecting moments like Valen’s testimony help balance some of the film’s self-lionization. Most of the film covers Scala during Thatcher-era Britain; therefore, Scala also became a refuge. Managers of Scala didn’t operate the cinema in a bubble: they hosted fundraisers, including collecting money for the historic bookshop Gay’s The Word when the government confiscated thousands of pounds worth of stock. Among Scala’s prominent queer audience, AIDS ripped its way through its patrons and members, and the cinema’s manager, in turn, responded by raising money for the Terrence Higgins Trust. Other queer subjects include Vic Roberts, a former staffer, who paid tribute to Scala’s open environment that allowed her to explore her sexuality and gender identity.

Scala!!! explores Scala’s queer history, but race isn’t explored as deeply. Some Black filmmakers talk about their experiences with Scala. The Black Audio Film Collective founders, John Akomfrah, and Lina Gopaul, offer their insightful commentary on being Black and British in 80s-era Britain, being inspired by Scala, and finding their artistic muse. Artist Isaac Julien is also on hand to talk about his personal experience at Scala as a queer Black man.

These voices are vital for Scala!!!, as they represent members of communities that were the brunt of brutish, racist backlash at the time and used their art as a commentary of that violence. Their inclusion makes the case that Scala’s contribution to British culture was urgent and necessary to counter the government’s regressive social policies.

The end of Scala!!! is sad and somewhat anticlimactic. An illegal screening of Stanley Kubrick’s notorious 1971 sci-fi crime film, A Clockwork Orange, depletes the cinema’s limited resources, and Scala fades to black. Much to John Waters ‘ amusement, Giles went to court over the screening, and the case essentially shut the venerable cinema down. Though it’s easy to hang Scala’s demise to that case, it’s unclear if it could have survived any longer, given the changes in popular culture and media consumption. (How Scala would exist in our streaming era is also an interesting question). The end of Scala!!! is suitably elegiac and valedictory, with poignance and affection.

As a bit of cinema history, Scala!!! is fun to watch. The testimonies are often moving and very funny. The various subjects speak about their time at Scala with love despite the building’s creakiness, the terrible sound system, and the perpetual rumbling of the Underground beneath the building. The film is also a thoughtful and pointed critique of London’s gentrification (descriptions of King’s Cross’ grittiness are an interesting contrast to the current King’s Cross’ scrubbed blandness). Scala’s end coincided with the end of Thatcher’s authority. It’s an interesting parallel, as it’s doubtful that Scala would survive in Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia when weirdness and transgression were summarily melted away.

RATING 9 / 10